It was one of those childhood Sundays when my grandmother would ask my father to wake me up for the mass. A few minutes later there I was trying to stand straight while wiping my gound and groping my way to the bathroom, detached from the house, in a foggy morning. Struggle! But the thought of buying an amulet at the Square Park and an extra peso would instantly put my mood to hurry up. Grandma hated waiting for that kind of event.
On Saturdays, the penultimate scenario, would be heading to the river to bring Nana her packed lunch and help her out with the voluminous laundry items. Weekdays were, of course, spent at school and its gardens and playgrounds. I was fortunate I had reared my primary and secondary education in the rural community. I now fully understand why I am quite drawn to appreciating small, reachable things around me especially nature’s bounties such as the trees, flowers, bees, and the like.
Those were the thoughts running through my head as we were entering the vicinity of Cabagan Public Market after 11 hours of being on the highway, and the ever stunning scenery show at the crack of dawn somewhere down that road.
The market, like the rest of what I stepped on and saw during younger years, is in my heart. It was not really chocolates or apples that put me on cloud nine during that particular period but the pair of binalay that I feasted on during Lent and the slice of rice cake Nana and Immo handed to me on market days. The joy my heart shouted for that was unparalleled. My heart still leaps at the very hint of it.
When our vehicle turned to the left to enter the town, the welcome arch shone like it was the first time I saw it. The laughter and the cries from the old book resonated across my heart. It has been a decade, I exclaimed. I never had that feeling of joy and sadness crashing together at the same time in that intensity level. It was overwhelming. It was happiness. It was sadness. It was very strange. It was very familiar.
I grew up in this town. I left it behind to pursue further education in the early aughts. I was able to come back on a regular basis for a time until I worked overseas and built a family far from it. I got caught in the middle…I had to choose one; I ended up abandoning the plan of visiting the base after three attempts since 2008.
It took so long for me to realize being able to set foot on my hometown again, even if it was just for a day and a half with my parents, the eldest, and the fifth and his wife, three months ago. The second, the sixth, and the seventh did not come because of their equally important engagements. I am forever grateful to the adamant pusher of the action and the “second” for lending me her car for the entire trip.
Feeling the clement heat of the sun of that Saturday morning was surreal. I still could not believe that it has been ten years since I moved away. I could actually see that so many things have changed in it but I could still feel the old things pulsating in the background. There goes a mall on the right side and a prominent bank on the other. A lot of other commercial buildings are flaunting. The smell of the air was different; it has become like a mildly stagnant pool until I got farther from the market area and saw the old, gigantic acacia trees at the Square Park.
The colorful carousel in it did not escape my notice. It filled my heart with so much joy out of the blue that I wanted to immediately hop on one of the horses.
From there, the air rushed from the open window, fresh and clean. I could not help breathing it in—an instant trophic smell. A few minutes later, the demarcated neighborhood’s hall came into sight, now completely roofed and beautifully painted. The simple houses along the road have become grand giving a western subdivision atmosphere. I could easily tell the foreign remittances have something to do with the obvious architectural improvement. The backroad had been paved and so many trees have grown, enough to cool the prevailing temperature down. It still feels a lot nicer here whenever the wind blows compared to the bustling city’s burning climate.
Shortly, we were all busy exchanging hellos at the clan’s compound. Finally, the reunion with uncles, aunties, nieces, nephews, cousins, and Grandma was taking place. Grandma, in spite of her bedridden state and who could barely recognize us anymore, still managed to give welcoming gestures with a slurred voice. She was actually one of the reasons why I had to come home. She had visited me several times in a dream since I was working overseas.
Once again, the ancestral home was in commotion after years; it caused quite a stir in the neighborhood but in a good way of course, especially when we were having lunch. It felt awesome to have gormandized the staple foods I and the family ate sometime ago: tuyo, dinengdeng, and carabao stew to name a few. I only get to eat them once in a blue moon since moving away.
I dozed off upon lying on the classic butaka on my aunt’s terrace. The rustic, summer zephyr was a jiffy sleeping pill. I roamed around aimlessly in a dream. I sauntered through my place and looked closely at how the things and people have changed. Somehow, it made me feel like I am an odd mix between a local and a tourist. There were no demolished buildings or houses around—only renovated—yet I still got lost all the more when I could not see the faces from the old picture frame in my head. It seemed everyone was a stranger but my relatives. The familiar landmarks such as the bahay kubo along the road leading to the river and the old, gigantic camachile on the threshold of the field, where we used to catch grasshoppers for food and fly kites at, was nowhere to be seen. They used to guide me from my childhood and teenage wanderings. The images I was trying to recreate could not completely get through because of the new, confusing elements in it.
I woke up at around 3:00 PM, went straight to the kitchen for some comfort snacks, and asked my brother to accompany me to my high school alma mater. The soft summer breeze heralded our arrival upon entering the school premises. I decided to park at the Oval that stood as a primary witness to so many important events in my high school life. I walked down memory lane amid the dilapidated and dejected buildings and the very stage at the Oval for half an hour. Trees and grasses have now swarmed all over place; howbeit, I was convivial with what I saw: the two tactical inspections, naked jogging, mouth-to-mouth candy hazing, use of real guns for drills, late-night lectures, crazy dances, snake rolls, duck walks, mind-boggling SOPs, games, JS promenades, period of so many first tastes, and the comforting feeling of youthful certainty.
I can now clearly say that I enjoyed high school more than I hated it. I must say I did it right as well because, clearly, l have so many potent memories that make me surely laugh out of nowhere the minute they pop into my head at any rate. Subsequently, I invited the clan for a light meal at the nearby noodle house, Zein’s Panciteria—highly recommended if you want to taste the best of the famous “Pancit Cabagan“.
The ebullient laughter and conversation in a heartbeat are two of the things I can never capture through photographs. Nonetheless, I could always record them in my mind.
The outset of the gloaming later prompted us to leave and drive to my favorite place: the river. When I landed my feet on the prairie right next to the bank, I felt instantly healed though I was not ill. I never saw this place that beautiful until that day. Such that it got us all hooked up to a time when darkness descended.
There was just pure savoring of the vast landscape of beautifully shaped farmlands teeming with hopeful sprouts, the serenity of water that seem to flow into eternity, and the distant fiery horizon in the background that added so much drama.
I always feel at peace whenever I hear the river gurgling or the wind sighing gently. My transitory stay right here was absolutely divine.
At night, my cousins brought a case of beer. I could not believe the kids I was looking after during freshmen year were now drinking with me. The night unfolded in the reminiscence of our childhood’s unassuming simplicity—playing with toy guns and cars; little horseplays; conversations that lasted until midnight during summer vacations; traditional games such as patintero, trumpo, yoyo, etc. It really felt good sharing bottles and catching up with them. It has been years since we were together. For a moment, it was as if home had remained frozen then I realized while gazing at my last brew…those are simply memories of a different era that can never be brought back anymore. Quite saddening…At the very least, they are still the reasons why I always have something to go back to.
I crashed to bed before 3:00 AM, with my mind still wandering into the realms of the world I used to live in. A couple of hours later, I went back to the river to catch the sunrise then bid farewell to the relatives. We were on the road again thereafter to head down to the main city. I had to catch my bus reservation in the evening for a trip to the South.
It was not my turn to drive so I spent some time reflecting on that quite a short visit. This return has brought up so many mixed feelings. I came back primarily to fulfill that longing in my heart to see my relatives, particularly Grandma, and the town. However, the last activity made me feel like it was more of a friendly reunion. Our conversations were based on the past when life was simpler and carefree until we ran out of old stories and memories to tell. Consequently, I was left there hanging and, at some point, feeling like an outsider. Those few hours of conversation revealed that there was much I could not relate to or understand anymore. It was a sad feeling, really. I may have appeared the same to them but there is just a part of me that is no longer there.
I am no globetrotter but my countable travel experiences and being an overseas worker since 2012 have drastically changed my perspective. The new places I have been to, the new languages I have tried to learn, the new cultures I have immersed in as well as the challenges I have overcome, brought out different ways of how I think and act.
In retrospect, I have now outgrown living in that zone. My aspirations were no longer in the same shape and I now long for the excitement, mobility, and pace of the city. Do not get me wrong, Cabagan will always be my hometown; my first home; the place where I had my first and only ear piercing, but this visit after a decade taught me that the idea of home transcends conventional wisdom.
When the initial stories, hugs, kisses, and/or reunions from a visit dissipate, we may find that coming home is not really coming home but paying a visit. Well, in my case, it was a visit to begin with. The digital world encourages us to explore and build a career outside the comfort zone where our grounds are borderless and our true home is being surrounded by the unknown and living in the moment.
Yes, our hometown will always be the place we grew up in; a big influence in creating the person we are today; and will always be home because it is where our family, friends, comfort, or stuff is but the new and bigger opportunities, adventures, lessons, discoveries, places, cultures, even languages the borderless world offers are equally imperative for our modern survival.
A tourist in my own home town (columbus.in.us)
16 Things I Learned When I Left My Hometown (self.com)
What Never Leaving Your Hometown Does to Your Brain (inverse.com)
How to Be a Tourist in Your Own Hometown (nationalgeographic.com)